October 25, 2021


There's nothing like our health

The Appeal of Ordinary Millennial Experience

6 min read

One of the many, sometimes contradictory narratives the media told about millennials in the 2010s was that they were “the perfectionist generation.” In 2018, an op-ed in The Guardian reported that perfectionism was “destroying the mental health” of the millennial generation; that same year, The Chicago Tribune called millennials a generation of “overachievers.” Much of this reporting framed young people’s exacting tendencies as a choice—they care too much about grades, or are spending too much time comparing themselves to others on social media. In her new book, An Ordinary Age, Rainesford Stauffer proposes a different theory: The growing political and economic precarity facing this generation has forced them to strive for perfection, because it often feels like the only guaranteed path toward stability, if not survival.

In An Ordinary Age, Stauffer uses a combination of personal reflections and interviews with “emerging adults”—a term borrowed from Dr. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett to refer to people roughly age 18 to 29—to analyze the particular struggles that young people face today. These include the pressures of social media, building a new home after leaving your hometown, and of course the pressure to be extraordinary. She agrees with many of the mainstream opinions about the existence of millennial overachievers, citing the first study to examine group generational differences in perfectionism, in 2017. That study found that several different types of perfectionism increased between 1989 and 2016, substantiating that young people today do struggle with perfectionism at higher numbers than in previous generations. But rather than claim that this overachieving is a personal or self-inflicted problem, Stauffer understands it as something “structural,” a problem—born out of unprecedented political turmoil, economic instability, and climate chaos—that has rendered even the idea of a future dubious. “The myth is that perfectionism exists because we want to be perfect, just like the myth persists that we’re obsessed with work because we want to achieve,” she writes. “It assumes a level of freedom of choice and financial security that doesn’t exist for a lot of people, and ignores a bitter truth: So broken are things, doing it all perfectly feels like the only shot at things turning out okay.”

Young people don’t want to be exceptional; they have grown up in a world where financial security, higher education, and health care are only available to a special few. But emerging adults should not have to be special to survive—and we should be fighting for a future where emerging adults can feel completely secure in their ordinariness.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Stauffer has published stories speaking to the complex social and emotional issues many young people are facing: the case for killing the “milestone-industrial complex” that exists around the subject of graduation; an argument for why generational conflict harms everyone; a gripping personal essay on the way young people often feel they are not “enough”; and an explainer on how ageism is hurting young people, too. Stauffer is far from the first person to write about the way issues like overwork and over-education are affecting certain young people—notably, Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials dealt with many of the same themes—but Stauffer’s book adds to a growing shelf of timely texts situating the needs of millennials amid the myriad demands of late capitalism. Stauffer’s innovation, and contribution to the debate, is her emphasis on a quality that so often goes ignored: the appeal of being completely ordinary. And as the pandemic has devastated much of our regular work, home, and social routines, emerging adults today are yearning for a sense of stable, normal life as never before.

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